Last night at the Club Passim open mic in Cambridge I heard a talented young woman sing a song I thought was called "Emma's Possibilities," about a girl about to graduate and go out into the world, and all that awaited her. About halfway through the song I realized she was saying "endless possibilities," but by that time I had a whole story in my head going on about Emma - what would await her here in 2016, and beyond?
The singer, an art school student, was of Asian-American descent, and played a ukulele rather than the folk-standard guitar. I don't know what research the Census Bureau has done on ukes versus guitars, but they have declared that by 2044, somewhere around Emma's fiftieth birthday, the U.S. will become a minority-majority country. That is, less than fifty percent of the country will non-Hispanic white.
A year ago that might not have seemed such a big deal. After all, we have an African-American president, and the Hispanic and Asian percentage of Americans has been growing for decades. But the 2016 election - the first presidential election Emma will be old enough to vote in - reveals that many Americans are not ready for the rainbow America is becoming.
In the 1980 election - the first presidential election I was old enough to vote in - we elected in a landslide a former B-movie actor who promised, in both his rhetoric and his policy proposals, to take us back to the 1950s, when life and politics were simple, and the world was divided into good (us), evil (the U.S.S.R.), and irrelevant (the rest of the world, except as chess pieces in the struggle between the two superpowers). We are generally regarded as having won that struggle, but life in the '80s was not so simple - along with images of the Berlin Wall coming down we should recall the bloody wars in Central America (in the name of fighting communism), our impotence in the Middle East (the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing which killed 241 U.S. Marines and 58 French servicemen), our tragically slow response to the AIDS epidemic, and, perhaps most tellingly, Reagan's removal of the solar panels which Jimmy Carter had installed on the White House.
Here in 2016, the Republican candidates are promising to take us back to Reagan's '80s. But the world is even more complex, with more and bigger problems with no simple solutions. Driving many, if not most, of these problems is human population growth: Earth's population, around three billion when I was born, reached seven billion in 2011 and is expected by United Nations estimates to reach between eight and eleven billion by Emma's fifty-fifth birthday in 2050. So demand, and competition, for resources - water, food, housing, energy - will only increase, and the strain on all of our planet's already-taxed ecosystems to meet those demands will also increase. And we're crowding out other species as we grow.
There has been progress - the development of renewable energies, new and more efficient methods of transportation and communication, great strides in medicine and genetics, greater acceptance of gays and other alternative identities in mainstream culture, and awareness of our planet as a finite resource - and hopefully Emma and her generation will continue to meet the many challenges we are leaving them. But it will be a bumpy ride. And until we resolve political problems like income inequality, access to health care, immigration status, money in politics, and institutional racism, it will be an uphill climb. And chances are that Emma and her classmates are starting that climb thousands of dollars in the hole from student loans.
Despite all this, Emma's possibilities are endless. She may not have the blind faith in the American Dream that previous generations had, but that dream didn't apply to whole swaths of our country's population anyway. Emma will live on a warmer planet with more people, so she'll have to be resourceful, and she may have to re-invent herself multiple times as the world changes at an ever-faster pace. But the payoff is experiencing, and helping shape, the future, instead of trying to hide in the past. If you were at Club Passim last night hearing all about Emma's possibilities, you'd be hopeful too.